Biden’s Personal Touch Doesn’t Amount to a Foreign Policy

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President Biden in Geneva, June 16.


Mikhail Metzel/Zuma Press

President Biden revealed a key weakness in his foreign policy during his summit with

Vladimir Putin

on Wednesday. “I know we make foreign policy out to be this great, great skill,” Mr. Biden told reporters after the meeting. Actually, he said, “all foreign policy is, is the logical extension of personal relationships.” He has used variants of this line for years, and boasts that he has “met every major world leader in the last 35 years.”

Alas, his Rolodex is likely to be more impressive than his legacy. Good rapport with other world leaders is helpful, but successful leaders make decisions based on national interest, not bonhomie.

Personal diplomacy was most influential in premodern times, when monarchs strengthened political alliances through marriages. These arrangements sometimes failed to work as intended, but a ruler’s family connections were a generally reliable guide to his country’s foreign policy. The rivalry between the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties dominated European politics for centuries, and when thrones became vacant, Europe went to war to determine whether the successor would hail from Austria or France.

By the 19th century, monarchs had learned to give priority to their nation’s interests over their dynasty’s, and marriage diplomacy became increasingly ineffective. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert intended for their eldest daughter’s 1858 wedding with Crown Prince Frederick to beget an alliance with Prussia, but their hopes were dashed by Berlin’s determination to unify Germany and London’s attempts to preserve a balance of power in Europe. By 1914, the rulers of Britain, Prussia and Russia were cousins, but they fought one another in one of the most destructive wars in history.

World War I discredited the idea that a monarch’s familial bonds would outweigh other factors in international relations. But after the war, democratic leaders mistakenly thought their personal relations could promote peace. In “Diplomacy,”

Henry Kissinger

remarked that when French Foreign Minister

Aristide Briand

invited Germany into the League of Nations, he justified the decision by citing the amiability of his German counterpart,

Gustav Stresemann.

The agreement secured the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize for Mr. Briand, but it did little to make France stronger or more secure, which the Germans demonstrated in World War II. During that war, President

Franklin D. Roosevelt

worked hard to court

Joseph Stalin,

but Stalin still reneged on his commitments to grant Eastern Europe self-determination.

Despite this record of failure, most recent American presidents have fallen into the trap of thinking that personal relationships can yield diplomatic breakthroughs. President

George W. Bush

famously said of Mr. Putin “I looked the man in the eye. . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul,” only to discover during the Russian invasion of Georgia that Mr. Putin’s charm concealed his desire to subvert the American-led international order. President


listed Turkish President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

as one of the world leaders he got along with best, and even solicited parenting advice from him just before relations with Turkey turned acrimonious.

President Trump’s famously mercurial personality seemed to prove that relationships can affect foreign policy, but a closer look reveals a harder truth. Many cited Japanese Prime Minister

Shinzo Abe’s

golf diplomacy with Mr. Trump to explain why Japan’s relationship with the U.S. prospered. But Mr. Abe’s success was more likely due to his concessions on trade than his time on the links.

Conversely, Mr. Trump’s fawning behavior toward Mr. Putin fueled the belief that the U.S. was giving Russia a free hand. But in several respects the Trump administration was tougher on Russia than Mr. Biden has been so far. The previous administration withdrew from faulty arms-control agreements, imposed sanctions on the strategic Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and adopted pro-fracking policies that hurt Mr. Putin’s bottom line. Mr. Biden has continued none of these policies. Presumably Mr. Putin is willing to pocket the strategic and economic gains under Mr. Biden if the price is an occasional acrimonious meeting.

Mr. Biden doubtless has more pleasant conversations with his counterparts than Mr. Trump did at this point in his presidency, but he has little to show for it so far. Partners in Asia turned him down on Burma sanctions; allies in Europe are keeping their options open with Russia and China. The recent Group of 7 and NATO summits have yielded aspirational statements but little else.

Mr. Biden has said “you’ve got to know the other man or woman’s soul, and who they are, and make sure they know you” to succeed internationally. He will achieve more if he remembers at the next summit that in foreign policy, it isn’t personal. It’s strictly business.

Mr. Watson is associate director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society.

Wonder Land: Emmanuel Macron welcomed Joe Biden to “the club.” He was talking about the European welfare state. Image: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Appeared in the June 18, 2021, print edition.

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